News story formats

Following the birth of my son I’ve just started an extended period of parental leave from work. Prior to my departure I was trying to better understand, rationalise and improve the way we used platforms and formats.

These are clearly linked: you cannot post audio to Twitter; you can’t post a long-form article to Instagram. But this is good! Most publishers are just doing the basic stuff and there’s room to easily reach a far larger audience by publishing in different formats or by repurposing archive content for different platforms. And within our faculties we have so many potential writers, presenters and collaborators! We were just beginning to get somewhere. Oh well. Something to pick up when I go back.

When I’m doing this sort of work I’m a sucker for this sort of visualisation:

This comes from Beyond 800 words: new digital story formats for news, a typology of news formats by Tristan Ferne for BBC R&D:

For the inception of a BBC R&D project to explore alternatives to these conventional formats I’ve conducted a review of the landscape of digital news, looking for innovations in article and video formats online. I’ve been looking particularly for story formats used for news that aren’t legacies from print or broadcast, that try to use the affordances of digital, that have been specifically designed for news and that are re-usable across stories and genres.

Elephas Anthropogenus

After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe.

Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This tree diagram traces the evolution of the elephant depiction throughout the middle ages up to the age of enlightenment.

Some of these are great, e.g. this from around 1400:

RapCaviar: music’s most influential playlist

Craig Marks for Vulture:

Moneybagg’s songs have already appeared on the regional playlist The Realest Down South (324,000 followers), but the dream is to be featured on RapCaviar — “one word,” reminds Basa, “because of Aristotle’s ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’” [Tuma] Basa selects the songs for RapCaviar on his own, utilizing predictive skills — “gut, gut, and gut,” he declares — honed at previous programming gigs at BET, MTV, and Revolt TV. “When something comes in and doesn’t smell right, I can detect it. ”

At Spotify, Basa also has access to a trove of data that enables him to gauge a song’s performance across the site: from how many times a song or artist has been searched for, to playlist-specific metrics such as percentage of people who skip the song (under 40 percent is desirable), percentage of saves to a user’s own playlists and percentage of users who listen to more than 90 seconds of a song, known as completion rate. When his instincts falter, Basa crunches the numbers. “Earlier this year,” he says, “one of my former co-workers at MTV called me. He’s business partners with XXXTentacion’s manager,” referring to the controversial underground rapper. “He said, ‘Yo, this guy is blowing up on Spotify.’ I said, ‘He is?’ I looked up his search results, and I’m like, ‘Oh shit. He really is.’” So I put it on Most Necessary, and reaction was instant.”

Part data scientist, part romantic laboring over a cassette mixtape, Basa sees himself as part of a hip-hop tradition. “Hip-hop has always valued curators: DJs, mixshow hosts, radio personalities,” he says. “This is just a different manifestation.” Officially, RapCaviar is updated weekly, whereby five or so new songs get cycled in, but Basa is often fiddling with it. Later in August, on a trip to Atlanta to kick off RapCaviar’s new series of branded concerts, he stops our conversation mid-sentence and grabs his Mac to add a track by rapper Ugly God, “Stop Smoking Black & Milds.” Over the weekend, he says, site search spiked for Ugly God, a leading indicator for Basa of vitality. To make room, he studies the data on a pair of J. Cole songs. One, “Change,” has a fairly high skip rate. With a couple of keystrokes, the song is ethered from the playlist. “If Tuma moves your song down on RapCaviar, your shit’s not working too well,” says Atlantic’s Greenwald.

What does “OK” stand for?

The Straight Dope, via All Things Linguistic:

Baloney. The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.

The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”

Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

Tagging fake news on Facebook doesn’t work

Jason Schwartz for Politico:

Facebook touts its partnership with outside fact-checkers as a key prong in its fight against fake news, but a major new Yale University study finds that fact-checking and then tagging inaccurate news stories on social media doesn’t work.

The study, reported for the first time by POLITICO, found that tagging false news stories as “disputed by third party fact-checkers” has only a small impact on whether readers perceive their headlines as true. Overall, the existence of “disputed” tags made participants just 3.7 percentage points more likely to correctly judge headlines as false, the study said.

This is particularly disappointing:

The researchers also found that, for some groups—particularly, Trump supporters and adults under 26—flagging bogus stories could actually end up increasing the likelihood that users will believe fake news.

You are the product

John Lanchester:

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

I finally got round to reading this—I currently, and temporarily, have a lot of free time on my hands, so I’m reading everything—and it’s fantastic. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the nascent subject of web platforms (in fact this piece is reminiscent at times of John Herrman, who is currently the writer of the most interesting and relevant articles on the topic).

The amateur cloud society that (sort of) rattled the scientific community

Jon Mooallem wrote a wonderful piece last year about clouds, their identification and classification, and being part of a group of likeminded people:

He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he’d done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society’s online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. “My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it’s an aimless activity,” he said. “And I’ve turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work.”

At the same time, he realized that he’d conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-­lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so “fluffy,” he said, “with no center to it, like a cloud.” Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. “I’m thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together,” he said.

The challenges of translating a maritime novel into a ‘landlocked’ language

From an obituary of linguist Ognen Čemerski:

Čemerski spent about 12 years working on the translation of “Moby-Dick,” a project initiated during his undergraduate studies at Graceland University in Iowa, USA. He conducted it as a scientific endeavor, and used it as basis of his masters’ thesis in linguistics.

This was not the first translation of “Moby-Dick” in Macedonian. There was one edition published in the 1980s, translated from Serbo-Croatian, which did not produce a lasting impact.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.

Song Exploder presents Inside Music

A new tool for exploring songs from Song Exploder and Google Creative Lab:

What if you could step inside a song? This is a simple experiment that explores that idea. See and hear the individual layers of music all around you to get a closer look at how music is made.

You’ll have come across the idea of exploring songs by breaking them down into their component tracks. Inside Music uses spatial audio for a VR-esque feeling. It’s open source, too.

The neural network will name your next band

Janelle Shane:

An important part of starting a new band is choosing an appropriate name. It is crucial that the name be unique, or you could risk at best confusion, and at worst an expensive lawsuit.

The neural network is here to help.

Prof. Mark Riedl of Georgia Tech, who recently provided the world a dataset of all the stories with plot summaries on Wikipedia, (enabling this post on neural net story names) now used his Wikipedia-extraction skills to produce a list of all the bands with listed discographies – about 84,000 in all.

I gave the list to the Char-rnn neural network framework, and it was soon producing unique band names for a variety of genres. Below are examples of its output at various temperature (i.e. creativity) settings.

Come for the funny names, stay for the bizarre shark influence.

Stained Glass by Real Estate

A fun interactive video for ‘Stained Glass’, the single by Real Estate from their album In Mind.

It’s a sort of ‘Yellow Submarine’-type colouring book experience where you paint the band and the background in real time as the video progresses.

Here’s the original, to which you can compare your attempts:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD4AANojivE

Yoda’s syntax in other languages

All Things Linguistic:

What does Yoda’s syntax look like in non-English versions of Star Wars? For those who aren’t familiar with Star Wars (all two of you), Yoda is an alien who, when speaking English, uses what seems to be an OSV syntax instead of the traditional SVO syntax.

So how do foreign translations of the script handle this? I am particularly interested in what it looks like in non-SVO languages. Are there any translations where Yoda’s incorrect syntax is emulated by using an English-like syntax? Or are other languages’ syntax so free that mistakes in the use of case or verb conjugations must instead be used to emulate Yoda’s “alien” speech?

Some interesting answers:

Estonian: Free word order language. Yoda retains the English OSV order. This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements. This gives his speech an unusual quality.

Japanese: An SOV language. Yoda seems to use a more or less correct syntax, with a more archaic vocabulary.

Romanian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV. He also places adjectives before the noun instead of after the noun, and uses an archaic form of the future tense.

Turkish: An SOV language. Yoda speaks in OSV. Note: This order is also used in classical Ottoman poetry, so the syntax may have been chosen in order to emphasize Yoda’s wisdom or age.

Atomic cookery

Joe Pinsker writes for The Atlantic about metacookbooks:

It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.

This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.

The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.

In our house, I am the one inclined to create a meal out of ingredients we already have. For me, this reduces waste, it encourages the use of seasonal ingredients, and it can result in novel discoveries and surprises which I think more than make up for any occasional disappointments.

My girlfriend, in one of the few areas of life that she is predominantly risk-averse, prefers the more consistent results produced by meticulously following recipes, and is not interested in such outlandish or risky approaches as ingredient substitution or generally making it up as you go along.

We’re both keen cooks with different approaches. I was working on a web design project today, using a pattern library, when it occurred to me: Pinkser is talking about breaking recipes into component methods. It’s an atomic approach.

Atomic design

Brad Frost’s 2013 post Atomic Design explores the building blocks of web design and how they combine:

A lot has been said about creating design systems, and much of it focuses on establishing foundations for color, typography, grids, texture and the like. This type of thinking is certainly important, but I’m slightly less interested in these aspects of design because ultimately they are and will always be subjective. Lately I’ve been more interested in what our interfaces are comprised of and how we can construct design systems in a more methodical way.

In searching for inspiration and parallels, I kept coming back to chemistry. The thought is that all matter (whether solid, liquid, gas, simple, complex, etc) is comprised of atoms. Those atomic units bond together to form molecules, which in turn combine into more complex organisms to ultimately create all matter in our universe.

Similarly, interfaces are made up of smaller components. This means we can break entire interfaces down into fundamental building blocks and work up from there. That’s the basic gist of atomic design.

Frost’s approach consists of five distinct ‘levels’ or ‘stages’ (he uses both terms interchangeably) of atomic design:

  1. Atoms. The core building blocks, e.g. HTML tags, form labels, inputs or buttons.
  2. Molecules. Combinations of atoms, e.g. a working form comprised of a label, input and button.
  3. Organisms. “groups of molecules joined together to form a relatively complex, distinct section of an interface,” e.g. a masthead consisting of a logo, primary navigation, search form and social media links.
  4. Templates. These are groups of organisms which together form a layout. Think of wireframes and mockups.
  5. Pages, which are specific instances of templates. All placeholder information is replaced by real content.

This is useful in many ways. People can focus on things in detail as well as having a broader view. Faced with problems, you can take a particular stage and investigate if the issue relates to how it combines with others, or if the problem is with what the item itself is comprised. You can look both ways for a solution.

Reverse-engineering cookery

Pinsker praises people like J. Kenji López-Alt for their reverse-engineering approach to cookery. Kenji’s The Food Lab column looks at a specific dish, e.g. katsu curry, by tweaking ingredients and methods and deconstructing other cooks’ approaches. He’s looking at the concept of katsu curry and seeing what approaches do and don’t work, relaying this to the reader, who then has all of the following:

  • A solid katsu curry recipe
  • An understanding of why that combination of ingredients and methods works
  • How to adapt the recipe according to what’s available
  • A set of transferable skills, e.g. making cutlets, brining, breading and frying

It offers more information than a typical recipe. It’s recipe and method together. Another proponent of this is Felicity Cloake, who’s How to cook the perfect… column for The Guardian breaks apart cooks’ approaches in search of a single foolproof recipe. There are others, too. Food52 have a Not recipes section which focuses more on a toolkit approach to a dish rather than a single recipe.

Atomic cookery

I hope it is obvious that ‘atomic’ here is unrelated to molecular gastronomy, however that is being defined at the moment. It is also unlikely to be a novel thought. Scientific or linguistic metaphors for cookery are already well-used. But it has given me a new way to think about how we approach these things in our particular house and with our particular approaches. If it’s easy to break apart a set of core recipes, and we understand how best to do this and why, we can reassemble them in new and (hopefully) successful ways.

By drawing a parallel between atomic design and cookery, we have something like:

  1. Ingredient/method/technique, e.g. eggs, deep-frying, julienning
  2. Preparation, e.g. making a soffrito
  3. Component, e.g. ragu sauce
  4. The conceptual ‘dish’, e.g. the idea of bolognese
  5. Specific recipe, e.g. a specific cook’s version of a dish, made up of components

This isn’t quite an exact parallel with the atomic design approach. There isn’t the same progression of increasing nested complexity through the list. A bolognese recipe isn’t more complex than the ‘concept’ of bolognese, for example; instead, it will use a subset of all the possible components.

Pinsker praises Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat as the best metacookbook along these lines. I’m certainly going to buy the book based on his description of the ‘checklist’ approach it instils in the cook:

Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.

And experienced home cooks, I bet. I can also recommend An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, which concerns itself with the grammar of good, economical cookery. I particularly like the section on soaking and cooking dried beans and pulses, and think often of ‘the fat boy in his prime’:

(Some caution to end. I’ve invoked a scientific metaphor taken from web design and also mentioned grammar while discussing food preparation and recipes. There are pitfalls of jumping too wholeheartedly into using these abstractions and metaphors. They might inadvertently impose a way of thinking that is more restrictive rather than freeing the cook to think about things in new ways. In a recent post for the New York Times, John Herrman cautions against the widespread use of the technology ‘stack’ as a metaphor, ending with a quote from computer scientist John Daugmann: “We should remember that the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each ‘new era’ can become, like their predecessors, as much the prison house of thought as they first appeared to represent its liberation.”)